Abstract

The rise of mathematical economics is typically understood as a fundamental shift in the language and technique of economic theorizing. This article argues that an examination of Tinbergen's work demonstrates that a similar “mathematical” turn occurred in economic policy. This article contextualizes Tinbergen's professional career at the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics and his early policy-oriented contributions as exemplified by the applied policy reports that he wrote between 1931 and 1936. His econometric work, including his seminal 1936 model of the Dutch economy and the closely related League of Nations model of the US economy, was rooted in his vision that business cycle research functioned in the service of the state. His work was aimed not at uncovering fundamental or structural relationships in the economy but at practical interventions in the economy by a state that developed control over new instruments of macroeconomic management. As such it can be and has been analyzed as an important contribution to economics as an engineering science. But this article demonstrates that Tinbergen also explicitly depicted the economy from the perspective of the policymaker and that he was attentive to the changing institutional order of the national and international economy. Tinbergen's work in this respect owed a great deal to the more political-economic tradition of German Staatswissenschaften than is typically acknowledged.

1. Introduction

On October 24, 1936, the Vereeniging voor Staathuishoudkunde en Statistiek (VSS, the Society for Public Economics and Statistics) gathered to discuss the answers of four prominent Dutch economists to a rather long-winded question: “Whether economic recovery could be expected in this country, possibly after government intervention, even without the improvement of the export position and what lessons could be drawn about this question from the experiences in other countries.” One of the four answers was prepared by Jan Tinbergen and contained the first macroeconometric model of a national economy. The VSS was a gathering of statisticians and economists, but the name of the society referred to an older tradition of doing economics; staathuishoudkunde means management of the state.

Since 1893, the VSS had set a policy-relevant question and asked a few of its members to write an answer in the form of a paper. Although the society predates the German Verein für Sozialpolitik (VfS), it was similar in outlook and aimed to produce policy-relevant economic knowledge. The VfS was the dominant organization of economists in Germany and closely associated with the German historical school; its approach was ethically motivated, historically and institutionally oriented, typically based on statistical inquiries, and aimed at practical policy reforms. Around the turn of the twentieth century, most of the questions pertained to housing, working conditions, and poverty relief. During the 1920s, the questions ranged from labor contracts and wages to matters of international trade and migration as well as the development of trusts and cartels and new forms of government organizations. Although the questions were economic in nature, they still bore witness to the idea that economics is first and foremost a practical science for the management of the state. What it means to manage the state has changed over the years, partly under the influence of changes within the field of economics, but that should not obscure the fact that this Dutch tradition was closer to what the Germans call Staatswissenschaften than to the idea of economics as an autonomous science (Desmarais-Tremblay 2021; Tribe 2022).

This article argues that Tinbergen's development of economic models, including his econometrics of the 1930s and his later quantitative policy analysis, was shaped by both his professional position at the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) close to the state and government in The Hague and his own orientation toward policy questions as a member of the Social-Democratic Labor Party (Sociaal-Democratische Arbeiderspartij) and their Plan of Labor. The significance of the 1936 model for Tinbergen was primarily that it provided a new tool for policymaking. Tinbergen's major postwar contribution was a theory of economic policy he published in 1952, which was developed within a similarly policy-oriented organization, the Central Planning Bureau. This theory incorporated his modeling techniques of the 1930s into a general framework for the pursuit of social goals through the manipulation of policy variables (Dekker 2021: chap. 10). His breakthroughs were thus developed in response to policy problems in an institutional context of organizations aimed at improving public economic policies.

Like Keynes (1939) in his critique of Tinbergen's League of Nations model, many critics of the mathematical approach argued that it would diminish the practical relevance of the science. Histories of the mathematization of economics have emphasized that it made the discipline more abstract (Mirowski 1991; Weintraub 2002; Düppe and Weintraub 2014). For Tinbergen, however, the mathematization of economics, or rather the combination of economic theory with statistics and mathematics in the form of econometrics, was an essential step for turning economics into a modern and neutral tool for policymaking. The mathematical or technical turn in economics did not take place merely at the level of theory but also in what Colander (1992), inspired by John Neville Keynes, terms the art of economics as a form of policymaking.

The policy-oriented nature of Tinbergen's mathematical models appears to be closely in line with a more recent strand of literature that has studied economics as an applied or engineering science (Backhouse and Cherrier 2017; Duarte and Giraud 2020; Morgan 2020). This literature has rightly emphasized the exchange of knowledge between economics and engineering and the appropriation of engineering tools by economists. Cheng (2020) has demonstrated that Tinbergen's work inspired Guy Orcutt's engineering work on microsimulations. Tinbergen was also in contact with a group of Dutch technocratic engineers (Rodenburg 2018; Kayzel 2022). Yet, Tinbergen maintained some distance from them and never became just a technocrat (Dekker 2021). His work maintained a political-economic dimension that included an explicit attention to the normative dimension in his policy models, to the (changing) institutional side of economics, and to the potentially contested nature of the position of economists vis-à-vis government and policymakers. I will argue that these characteristics mean that it would be anachronistic to treat his mathematical model through either the lens of the formalization of economics or the transformation of economics into an engineering science. Instead, Tinbergen's work and the way he developed his mathematical model were indebted significantly to the Germanic tradition of Staatswissenschaften.

The second section of this article provides a brief overview of Tinbergen's professional career between 1929, when he obtained a formal position at the Central Bureau of Statistics, and 1954, the year he left the Central Planning Bureau. The third section provides an overview of his work in econometrics between 1930 and 1936 to demonstrate the extent to which policy questions and the development of econometrics existed next to each other and reinforced each other in his early work. The fourth section argues that Tinbergen's econometric work was aimed at the control of the business cycle rather than the search for the underlying structure of the economy and demonstrates how that aim shaped his perspective on both business cycles and unemployment. The fifth section analyzes how this view was reflected in what he believed to be the purpose of economic knowledge and the role of experts in macroeconomic policymaking.

2. Tinbergen's Early Career

Tinbergen completed his dissertation in physics in 1929 supervised by Paul Ehrenfest, a theoretical physicist who was at the center of the network of European researchers.1 Tinbergen wrote his dissertation on minimum problems in physics with a final chapter that applied mathematical techniques to the establishment of equilibrium in several different market types (Tinbergen 1929). Ehrenfest had encouraged Tinbergen's interests in economic theory from the moment they started working together in 1923, had put him in contact with Karl Menger and Knut Wicksell, and had encouraged him to study the leading (theoretical) mathematical economists of the age, such as Arthur Bowley and Irving Fisher. Three years before finishing his PhD, Tinbergen had started working at the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) in The Hague. Tinbergen had refused the military draft, and it was decided that he had to perform social services for two years. He started working at a prison in Rotterdam, but with the help of his father, he managed to be transferred to the CBS for the final six months of his duties.

At the CBS, he worked with the director of the bureau, Henri Methorst, and closely with the head of the business cycle department, Marius J. de Bosch Kemper, whose grandfather had been one of the founders of the VSS in 1849 (Maas 2014: 40). At the time, De Bosch Kemper was engaged in the development of a Dutch equivalent of the Harvard Barometer of the business cycle. The Harvard Barometer consisted of three constructed time series that were meant to indicate the position of the economy (rising or falling) in the current business cycle. Many hoped that the regularities of the cycle could to some extent be predicted or explained (Lenel 2018), while others hoped to make private fortunes through superior foresight (Friedman 2013).

De Bosch Kemper struggled to construct a similar barometer for the Netherlands; he faced several objections from local stakeholders who all, in one way or another, worried that the Dutch economy had a somewhat different character than the American economy (Van den Bogaard 1999). Such worries existed in various other countries, and attempts by the League of Nations, which encouraged European countries to develop such a barometer, had been frustrated by the fact that many countries believed that their economy was too distinct to be standardized (Lenel 2021). Based on more historical approaches to economics, the economic statisticians in various continental European countries were not convinced that economies were similar enough to be studied by unified statistical measures. When Tinbergen arrived at the CBS, he soon took over this project, and he produced an alternative barometer that placed more emphasis on international comparisons of trends than the comparison of various national trends. This reflected a widespread belief among Dutch economists, which Tinbergen also held, that the Dutch economy as a small open economy was structurally different from the more autarkic economy of the United States.

This work provided a large boost to Tinbergen's work since it brought him into contact with many of the leading statistical economists of the period. In June 1929, he visited Lucien March, who was working at the Institut de Statistique de l'Université de Paris. That meeting led to an invitation for a meeting in July with Arthur Bowley, Ernst Wagemann, March, and Methorst, four leading figures at their respective national statistical institutes.2 In the fall of 1929, he visited Wagemann again at the German Institut für Konjunkturforschung (IfK) in Berlin, where he met some of the premier business cycle researchers in Germany, among them Otto Nathan, Carl Ruberg, and Anton Reithinger. The IfK was founded in 1925 under the directorship of Wagemann, and in the words of the historian of the institute: “The innovations of the years after 1925 marked a fundamental break with the past. Economic expertise entered into a new relationship with political power” (Tooze 2001: 104). In July 1930, Tinbergen was invited to a joint meeting of the various European business cycle institutes.

In 1933, Tinbergen hosted the meetings of the Econometric Society in Leiden; by that time, he was fully integrated within the econometric community, a field that had the grand ambition to one day replace economics. Tinbergen published regularly in the new journal Econometrica and contributed several overview articles to it. He also obtained an extraordinary professorship in Rotterdam that year; in his inaugural lecture, he emphasized the importance of statistics that functioned in the service of business cycle research. However, his academic career was a side job, and his main professional position was still at the statistical bureau. This meant that he was often concerned with very practical research into various agricultural markets or the housing market. Unemployment statistics that had been collected since 1906 at the CBS were another prominent subject on which he worked, as well as the gradual development of national income accounts with his colleague J.B.D. Derksen (Tinbergen 1933; Derksen 1940).

In 1936, Tinbergen was invited to the League of Nations, where he was asked to continue the work of Gottfried Haberler on business cycles. His assignment in Geneva was part of a larger research project that the Economic and Financial Section of the League of Nations had started with the help of the Rockefeller Foundation in the early 1930s (De Marchi 1991). Tinbergen wanted to develop another econometric model of a national economy, the American economy, but initially, the manager of the research project Arthur Loveday was skeptical of that idea. He wanted Tinbergen to test the various business-cycle theories that Haberler had identified. Tinbergen was interested not so much in theory testing for its own sake but in identifying quantitative relationships that could inform policy. The Economic and Financial Section could provide only so-called technical advice, and hence Tinbergen was asked to refrain from offering direct policy recommendations. As a consequence, his policy-oriented investigations of the effectiveness of the New Deal policies of President Franklin Roosevelt remained unpublished (Ehrenfreund 2022).

During World War II, Tinbergen continued his work at the Central Bureau of Statistics, but the German occupiers declared business cycles a thing of the past, so his research agenda was redirected. By 1943, Tinbergen started dreaming of a more ambitious research project on business cycles, which he imagined could be a separate division within the CBS. He drew up a memorandum that circulated among his friends and political acquaintances. After the Netherlands was liberated in May 1945, there was a new progressive interim government in which Hein Vos, a good friend of Tinbergen, occupied a prominent place. Vos believed that something more ambitious was possible and proposed a separate organization that would be concerned with the planning and preparation of economic policy. Tinbergen became the first director of this new organization, which started in 1945 under the somewhat misleading name Central Planning Bureau. Although Vos did have some ambitions to engage in planning the economy, Tinbergen always envisioned it as an advisory institution. Nonetheless, the first years involved much detailed planning, created out of necessity in the shortage-ridden postwar economy. However, the CPB increasingly became an institution that provided plans with macroeconomic targets that the government sought to pursue and for which different policy instruments were employed. As such the CPB was an important successor to the reports produced by the VSS.

3. Tinbergen's Policy Analysis

The types of questions that the VSS set to its members were answered in a so-called prae-advies (literally pre-advice), a type of report that was commissioned by various social organizations seeking to influence public policy. Tinbergen wrote his first pre-advice in 1931 on the agricultural crisis for the Society for Promotion of the Study of Social Issues. He wrote five pre-advices between 1931 and 1936, culminating in his 1936 pre-advice that contained the econometric model of the Dutch economy. On the academic front, his first publication in Econometrica appeared in 1933, and in a short period of time, he published three more articles in the journal. The other major international scientific outlets for his work in these early years were German journals, in particular the Weltwirtschaftliches Archiv and the Zeitschrift für Nationalökonomie, in which he published twice and three times, respectively. This is clearly a limited proxy for establishing how much time he devoted to more practical matters and to more theoretical developments, but they give some sense of the significant publications he worked on during the first half of the 1930s. His international academic publications were more theoretical in orientation than his practical reports, but theoretical issues crept into the practical reports, and several of the academic publications were explicitly concerned with stabilization policies. Assous and Carret (2022: 129–37) examine Tinbergen's theoretical contributions from this period in great detail and argue that these explain his policy positions. This linear relationship between theoretical results and policy positions is, I think, more generally unreliable for understanding the policy views of economists. In what follows I show that Tinbergen relied on a much broader evidence base, one that covered the full range of what we might call policy science or in German Staatswissenschaften.

If we include a broader set of Tinbergen's publications, then the balance clearly shifts in the direction of policy work. From 1930 onward, Tinbergen actively contributed to debates within the Social-Democratic Workers Party about the joint problems of high wages, unemployment, and public works projects as well as policies for recovering from the continuing depression. In his party, Tinbergen was involved with the development of the Plan of Labor, which proposed public works as well as other measures to fight unemployment. The plan followed the example set by the Plan De Man, spearheaded by Hendrik De Man in Belgium as a political program of action that emerged as the social-democratic response to the rapid rise of fascism across Europe. It met with significant opposition from the more socialist wing within the party because it attempted to reform capitalism from within. The most radical opponents of the Plan of Labor suggested that crises were an inevitable part of the capitalist system and would ultimately make it implode, but some more moderate critics were equally skeptical because the plan suggested that social-democrats took responsibility to save and reform a system not worth fighting for (Dekker 2021: chap. 6).

His various pre-advices give us a good sense of how Tinbergen immediately translated new ideas in econometrics and mathematical economics into policy ideas. One of the early studies he undertook at the CBS was an attempt to find a cycle similar to the pork cycle discovered by Arthur Hanau (Hanau 1928). Hanau, a young German statistical economist who worked at the IfK in Berlin, had managed to demonstrate the existence of an endogenous cycle caused by the fact that pig production responded with a delay to changes in prices. Tinbergen managed to find a similar cycle in the shipbuilding industry in the Netherlands (Tinbergen 1931). In the same year that the shipbuilding study was published, Tinbergen wrote a pre-advice about the agricultural crisis resulting from persistently low prices for agricultural products, which plagued the Netherlands. He directly applied Hanau's theory to argue that there were predictable cycles in agricultural markets, the knowledge of which could be used to stabilize prices. He argued that one of the problems that the Dutch agricultural sector faced was that since market dynamics were international, policy at the national level could achieve very little. This was an industrial study with considerable attention to institutional details.

Tinbergen's second pre-advice was an answer to the question set by the VSS of “whether a different organization of production potentially aided by the government could help get the country out of the continuing slump” (Tinbergen 1932). This contribution was distinct because he was explicitly asked to write a socialist response to the question. Tinbergen therefore started with a few remarks on the wastefulness of the current economic system due to its volatility and several wasteful aspects of competition. However, he displayed little serious interest in ideological discussions; instead, he poked fun at the socialists in his party, who interpreted the prolonged crises as a sign that the end of capitalism was near. The core of his contribution in this second pre-advice was a consideration of whether the present downturn was merely a “normal” downturn and whether a natural recovery was to be expected. It contained some remarkably cutting-edge notions that were circulating at the time. Following discussions with Johan G. Koopmans,3 he explored the possibility of multiple equilibria. It was possible, Tinbergen argued, that the economy was presently stuck in a suboptimal equilibrium, an idea that Keynes's General Theory would help popularize several years later. The ideas of J. G. Koopmans were inspired by his mathematical studies in which interdependent systems could have multiple solutions. Similarly, Koopmans argued that there could be several equilibria that would be stable by themselves, but only some of them would also coincide with maximum production and full employment. This implied that the economy could be stuck in a suboptimal position or path (Assous and Carret 2022: chap. 6). Although he was asked to write a pre-advice from a political perspective, this report stands out for his reliance on high theory, but it is worth emphasizing that significant work was needed to transform theoretical notions into policy advice.

There is now a whole apparatus of economic policies and levers that are available to the state. However, economic policy was still very limited and underdeveloped around 1930. In his 1932 pre-advice, Tinbergen first started to explore what the state could do. Up to that point, he had expected little from state interventions and had placed his hopes in developments taking place within industry. What he proposed was a curious amalgam of the following measures directed at a variety of industries that retrospectively look rather contradictory: (a) industrial policy aimed against cartels, (b) limitations on the power of brands, (c) state credits to boost lagging production and demand, (d) public works to fight unemployment, (e) rationalization, that is, centralization of production to benefit from economies of scale, in particular among small and mid-size businesses, and (f) limitations to overproduction in agriculture. What stands out is that the advice was not macroeconomic but rather based on the needs and problems of different industries.

Although different in details, such a mixture of policies aimed at different economic sectors is also what characterized Roosevelt's New Deal (Barber 1988). In his 1934 pre-advice for the Society against Unemployment, Tinbergen answered the question of what effects were to be expected from the measures that President Roosevelt had recently undertaken. Tinbergen repeated the idea that recovery was not an automatic process and that in the case of falling wages, an economy might collapse, with explicit reference to his article on stabilization policies in the Zeitschrift für Nationalökonomie of that same year (Tinbergen 1934a). He argued, “One attempts to imagine what the recognition of this negative truth [the unprecedented disasters which might have occurred if Roosevelt had not intervened] entails for the responsible politician or scientific advisor. The mere recognition of these possibilities justifies the interventions” (Tinbergen 1934b: 2–3). This statement reflected Tinbergen's growing belief in the potential of government intervention, but more significantly, it reflected the growing sense of urgency to respond to the crisis in the context of the rise of fascism.

This pre-advice on Roosevelt's policies, unlike the other more verbal advice, consisted mostly of a presentation of relevant statistics from 1932 and 1933 about the economy of the United States. In that sense, the pre-advice resembled the reports he produced for the CBS on the various industries in the Dutch economy. Tinbergen was honest that he could not say much about the extent to which the various individual measures had contributed to economic recovery, but he was positive about the overall attempt to increase the purchasing power in the economy. This report is best characterized as a case study inspired by the fact that Roosevelt had captured the political imagination of the time, which was reflected in Tinbergen's advice and considerations.

His 1935 pre-advice was an evaluation of the different kinds of business cycle policies; like the 1931 advice, it was prepared for the Society for the Promotion of the Study of Social Issues associated with his social-democratic party (Tinbergen 1935c). Tinbergen demonstrated yet another type of policy science, for he presented a comparative study of the measures undertaken in Sweden, Italy, England, the United States, and Germany. The advice analyzed the development of agricultural and industrial indicators, government debt, and macroeconomic figures such as the wage level and national income in these countries. In his reflections, Tinbergen emphasized the importance of public works, as well as measures to restore purchasing power, especially among the unemployed, and this was the first report in which he considered the devaluation of the guilder as a relevant policy option. A year later, when the Plan of Labor came out, devaluation was not proposed because the Social-Democratic Workers Party feared that it would undermine support for the plan and harm the credibility of the party as a potential partner in government.

In the four reports written between 1931 and 1935, Tinbergen covered a wide range of policy-related questions. He concerned himself with the organization of production in particular industries (1931), the nature of the current downturn and the structure and future of the contemporary economy (1932), the evaluation of specific policy measures (1934), and the international comparison of business cycle policies (1935). In all these areas, he relied on techniques, methods, and insights that were forged in the context of mathematical economics and econometrics as they were developing during these years. As such, he was able to combine an increasingly technical economics with new solutions to practical problems.

That same combination was on display in his 1936 pre-advice, famous for the fact that it contained the first macroeconometric model. However, that fame wrongly suggests that it was Tinbergen's primary purpose to advance economic theory. The pre-advice provided Tinbergen with an opportunity to draw the full conclusions from what he knew about different types of policy to combat the continuing economic downturn. The report was crucially shaped by his activities for the Plan of Labor. In the preparations for that plan, he compiled a list of public works projects that could be undertaken and performed extensive statistical and public finance work to demonstrate that the plan would not lead to budget deficits. The party insisted that for the credibility of the plan, it was necessary that it respected traditional norms of policy. At the heart of Tinbergen's 1936 pre-advice was the comparison of the effects of different policy paths, such as the devaluation of the guilder, the Plan of Labor, wage cuts, and the protection of Dutch industries.

I do not mean to argue that Tinbergen was not also interested in the technique of macroeconomic modeling to understand the economy. In 1935, he presented a macroeconomic model without coefficients or institutional details in an article published in the Weltwirtschaftliches Archiv (Tinbergen 1935b). However, even there, he emphasized the importance of the size of the effects of different policies, not the stability of the structural equations. The size of the effects depended on institutional and historical contexts, as he demonstrated with the example of wage cuts in his 1936 pre-advice. Lowering wages would have a beneficial effect on the exports of a country but would also harm the domestic purchasing power of workers. To determine whether wage cuts were a good policy measure, one had to estimate the relative importance of these two effects. He argued that for a small open economy such as that of the Netherlands, the effects on exports probably outweighed the negative effects on purchasing power, but the reverse would be true for a larger and more autarkic economy such as that of Germany or the United States.

Tinbergen's reason for favoring an endogenous theory of the business cycle was also noteworthy. Most theorists of his age preferred an endogenous theory for methodological and theoretical reasons; they believed that the cycle was a purely economic phenomenon and that an explanation should therefore not rely on external factors (Grudev 2019). Tinbergen instead preferred to base such a theory on policy grounds: “In the mind of the econometrists, the mechanism deserves the main attention especially, because what we can influence is much more the structure of the mechanism than the occurrence of the shocks” (Tinbergen 1951: 110). Tinbergen did favor an endogenous theory, not because it was more accurate or satisfactory from a theoretical point of view but because it was more useful in formulating policy. In his 1935 survey article in Econometrica, he regarded the stabilization policies that combatted the endogenous mechanisms in the economy as the true type of business cycle policies (Tinbergen 1935a: 306–7).

4. Controlling the Cycle

There was one major limitation to the simulation of the various policy alternatives that Tinbergen undertook in 1936: they were “added on the model,” as if the structure of the economy were fixed and policy was a completely external phenomenon. Hein Vos, one of the other architects of the Dutch Plan of Labor, was therefore critical of the results of Tinbergen's model (Vos 1938). He argued that Tinbergen wrongly assumed that the underlying structure of the economy remained the same, whereas the purpose of the Plan of Labor was to alter this underlying structure. Through institutional change, or “ordening,” a Dutch concept close to the German Ordnung, production would be coordinated within certain industries, the government would provide stability, and the system would become more stable and less wasteful. This would put the economy permanently on a different path, Vos argued.

The famous critique of Tinbergen's macroeconometric models of the Dutch and American economies, the latter developed for the League of Nations, was that he failed to uncover the underlying invariant structure of the economy. In his critical memorandum, Frisch highlighted the contingent nature of the relationships that Tinbergen identified and argued that a better theoretical picture of the stability, or autonomy, of the different relationships was required (Frisch 1995). Keynes was more policy oriented in his critique of Tinbergen's method, but he also highlighted the fact that the model was too simple and based on assumptions that were clearly not warranted, such as the linearity of the relationships and stationarity (Keynes 1939). Both critiques pointed in the direction of more sophisticated and theoretically inspired econometric models, a tendency reinforced by the Cowles program in econometrics (Dimand 2020).

However, instead of developing his model in this more theoretical direction as his academic critics suggested, Tinbergen paid more attention to Vos, who had urged him to think more seriously about the changing institutional structure of the economy rather than the underlying invariant structure. In The Dynamics of Business Cycles, Tinbergen made clear that to him, the structure of the economy was not fixed but a result of the institutional ordering of the economy, stating, “One might describe a certain specific form of economic policy as a change in one of the relations of the economic structure of the economy” (Tinbergen and Polak 1950: 266).4 Stabilization policies, Tinbergen argued, should aim at changing the structure of the economy. As an example, he provided stabilizing public works policies that fundamentally altered the investment relationship in the economy.

In his analysis of business cycle policy, which was most likely developed during the war, Tinbergen was explicit that his goal was not to study the current structure of the economy but to use the knowledge about the structure of the economy to change that same structure and create more stability, explaining, “Since the economic relations determine the movements which follow from an initial disturbance of the equilibrium, it will be clear that a particular objective with respect to these movements can be achieved only by making the relations satisfy certain specific conditions. It will not be possible to leave the relations as they are and yet to achieve a stable movement” (Tinbergen and Polak 1950: 351). The question in Tinbergen's econometrics for policy is then to analyze which relations should be changed and how. As Assous and Carret (2022) demonstrate in their book, mathematics becomes useful for studying which types of systems are stable or unstable.

The goal of changing the structure of the economy had been on Tinbergen's mind as early as 1938, when he argued, “From these and similar analyses we see that the results of various types of policy are less uncertain than the movements of the uninfluenced systems” (Tinbergen 1938: 39). In the 1940s, Tinbergen adopted the notion of targets and instruments, concepts that were fully developed in his Theory of Economic Policy-Making, which first appeared in 1952. In that book and in later editions, Tinbergen developed the different levels at which policy can operate, and these levels were defined by the extent to which they affected the structure of the economy. Quantitative policy, such as a change in the interest rate or the level of government expenditures, was the simplest level and left the structure of the economy intact.

Qualitative policies were of two types. The less fundamental qualitative policies left the foundations and the decision-making structure in the economy intact and “merely” changed the coefficients in the model. As an example, Tinbergen used the tax system or stabilizing policies such as public works in times of economic downturns. More important for the structure of the economy were the qualitative policies he called “reforms,” which altered the foundations of the economy, and the relevant relationships in the model describing this economy. Tinbergen discussed a number of them: social security schemes, minimum incomes, education, monetary reforms, centralization and decentralization of production decisions, and industrial democracy (Tinbergen 1956). These foundational reforms altered who “controlled” the level of key variables in society, and they altered the decision-making structure within an economy. Tinbergen had abandoned the search for an underlying invariant structure of the economy and instead suggested that modern policy did not merely intervene in an existing system but altered the very foundations of that system.

It is not incorrect to see Tinbergen's work as an example of social engineering (McCloskey 1996; Blok 2005; Mortágua and Louçã 2022). Seen through a mechanistic lens, the qualitative policies of Tinbergen appear as little more than quantitative policies combined with grander ambitions. Not merely the direction of the business cycle could be engineered, but the structure of the economic machine could be engineered to operate as desired. And since economics more broadly was transformed in this direction, it was generally received this way. But I think the social engineering understanding misses something fundamental.

Tinbergen thought in institutional terms that were much closer to the tradition of Staatswissenschaften. Unlike his friend Frisch, he was not convinced that the economy as a whole could or should be planned (Dekker 2019). Instead, he wanted to change the institutional organization, the Ordnung, of the economy (Tinbergen 1948, 1949). This notion of Ordnung is most closely associated with ordoliberalism, but it was a significant element in the German historical-institutional tradition more broadly and also used in a broader debate about the structure of the economic system, which I have analyzed elsewhere (Dekker 2022). Tinbergen was aware of the significance of this institutional change and believed that the professionalization of economic expertise was part of it.

His adoption of the quantitative decision models, for which Frisch laid the groundwork, has been well documented (Dupont-Kieffer 2003). But Tinbergen developed these and made them influential at the Central Planning Bureau, of which he had been director since its founding in 1945. This bureau provided expert advice directly to the government, and Tinbergen believed that politicians could set targets while his bureau could advise on the various policy paths, if any, that would achieve these goals. The decision variables from his models were those variables that could be directly influenced or set by the government through wage policies and the now-nationalized Central Bank. The CPB and the expanded set of policy instruments in the hands of the state meant that the structure of the (Dutch) economy had changed.

As such, the models started to make sense within this altered institutional setting, where economic experts such as Tinbergen had come to occupy an official advisory position. But the models also made explicit that economics alone was not sufficient. The aims, and to some extent the means, of economic policy were to be decided by policymakers. The context in which these models were originally used was thus a policy context, in which they functioned at the intersection between government and economic advisers. They explicitly modeled the decision-making structure of an economy and suggested they would be based on the preferences of democratic voters, but since a convincing social welfare function was not yet constructed, for now they had to rely on the “policy-maker's welfare function” (Tinbergen 1956: 15). Later Tinbergen imagined a level above these aims, the values that a society tried to realize. His models were thus meant to serve the state, recognized the normative dimensions of policy, and explicitly theorized, and thereby reimagined, the relevant role of economic experts and politicians.

5. The Capable Hand of Experts

For Tinbergen, econometrics and macroeconometric models in particular were primarily a form of policy science. To complete my argument that they should be read in the tradition of Staatswissenschaften, there is one important aspect left to demonstrate, namely, that he wrote first and foremost for those working in the state. In some of his work, this is straightforward, and his Theory of Economic Policy makes it clear that it is meant for “planning experts in governments” (Tinbergen 1956: vii). However, this tendency can be observed much earlier. An early book from 1933 on business cycles was criticized by his fellow party member Sam de Wolff for being merely concerned with the technicalities of the phenomenon and not at all with raising the consciousness of the workers of their class position or even the improvement of the social position of the workers.5 This tendency can be seen even more clearly in an article dedicated to public education, in which Tinbergen made no attempt at all to hide his disdain for the economic opinions of the public, politicians, and business leaders. He discredited knowledge gained from experience and argued that questions of macroeconomic policy were best left to economic experts and should be taken away from both business leaders and members of parliament, who were insufficiently qualified to make decisions on these matters. He concluded, “From this follows that one should leave questions of economic policy to professional economists and that laymen cannot and should not get involved in all discussions about economic policy” (Tinbergen 1940: 21).

The fact that Tinbergen was first and foremost concerned with advising government officials is also evident from his exchange with Otto Neurath, the Viennese pioneer of visual statistics. Neurath moved to The Hague in 1934 and sought to establish a museum for public education, like the one he had managed in his hometown (Leonard 1999). Neurath repeatedly sought contact with Tinbergen both in his role as researcher at the Bureau of Statistics and in his role as coauthor of the Plan of Labor. Tinbergen, however, showed little to no interest in the visual statistics of his Austrian colleague. Their visions of economic knowledge diverged. Neurath hoped to emancipate citizens through his visual statistics, while Tinbergen hoped to improve society with expert knowledge.

Tinbergen argued that the economist dealt primarily with technical questions of policy that required a high degree of skill (Tinbergen 1946a). Elsewhere he argued, “Only the craftsman, the mechanic, can tinker with the complicated economic machine without causing accidents” (Tinbergen 1946b: 25). Again, the mindset is close to that of the engineer. In a telling metaphor, he argued that economic policy should be conducted by the “capable hand,” by which he meant the economic experts (Tinbergen 1945b: 9). Tinbergen was not the first economist who presented himself as a neutral expert. In Germany, economics as policy science had developed based on claims of superior historical-statistical knowledge, although it was often combined with an explicit moral agenda, a combination also found in American progressivism (Leonard 2016). Important predecessors of this more technical expertise were the money doctors who advised political leaders around the world on monetary policy (Flandreau 2003). This view of the neutral experts was central to Tinbergen's reflections on the role of the Central Planning Bureau and occupied a prominent place in his perspective on international economic cooperation after the war, in which he explicitly argued that politicians should play a more modest role than after World War I (Tinbergen 1945a; 1945c: 105). But like those working before him in the tradition of Staatswissenschaften, his work retained a political dimension, which means that we should not reduce it to the mindset of an engineer.

Tinbergen contrasted the role of the expert to that of the politician who was typically too shortsighted and of the business and social leaders who were self-interested. The economic expert would instead work for the general interest. That might sound completely uncontroversial, but in the tradition of Staatswissenschaften, it marked an important evolution. The crucial idea of the art of state management (volkshuishoudkunde) was to enable the state to manage its own estate as best as possible by ensuring both internal and external security, sufficient revenues, and a flourishing private sector (Tribe 1995). The German historical school under the leadership of the Verein für Sozialpolitik promoted a leading role for the state in addressing the social question, and it had done so in a reformist, rather than a revolutionary, fashion (Grimmer-Solem 2003). The workers’ movement out of which Tinbergen came claimed that the state was partial to bourgeois interests and countered with the promotion of the interests of the proletariat. Tinbergen felt attracted to neither and argued from 1933 onward that the economist should be concerned with the promotion of general human welfare through reform.6

Tinbergen understood the technical tools he developed as having a dual role. As Boumans (2014) has demonstrated, they were a tool to forge scientific consensus. This was particularly evident at the League of Nations, where Tinbergen attempted to synthesize different theories of the cycle in his model of the US economy. But for politicians, the models would be of direct practical value since they could demonstrate how to most effectively achieve certain targets. In both domains, the models were a means to overcome ideological differences and to forge agreement. In that sense, Tinbergen's efforts were similar to those of mathematical economists who believed they could overcome the normativity of (verbal) economic theory. However, Tinbergen did so from a practical perspective, rooted in economics as a science of the state , in which his policy models were meant to produce economic advice that could be supported by a broad coalition. This made him unpopular with the more ideological wing of his own party but also an outlier among the mathematical economists. He shared the abstract goals of realizing socialism with his party members but the means of mathematical modeling with his academic colleagues.

6. Conclusion

The local entanglements of Tinbergen's mathematical economics can be found in the institutional context of Tinbergen's work as well as in the practical orientation of the society of Dutch economists, the Vereeniging voor Staathuishoudkunde. When Tinbergen expressed an interest in technical economics in the 1920s to the leading economic thinker in the social-democratic party, Floor Wibaut, he was told that it was unlikely that employment could be found in that direction. However, at the Central Bureau of Statistics, Tinbergen provided a major impulse to the economic section of the bureau in line with the purpose of this institute to generate relevant knowledge for policymakers and other interested parties. The institute was located in The Hague, the city that is home to the Dutch parliament and the ministries but lacks a university.

Stamhuis has done much to analyze the roots of statistics in the Netherlands in the traditions of political arithmetic and Staatswissenschaften (Stamhuis 1989; van Maarseveen, Klep, and Stamhuis 2008). Those roots are clearly displayed in the way that the VSS set its yearly questions, with a practical orientation and often a combination of legal and statistical aspects. Although Tinbergen contributed significantly to modern modeling techniques in economics, his pioneering work of the early 1930s was rooted in this practical tradition of policy science aimed at the state and with a keen awareness of the institutional differences between national economies. His mathematical models were designed to be new tools for policymaking by the state: they were novel instruments or tools for a modern policy science.

In her article on technocratic economics, Mary Morgan (2020: 300) writes that “our understanding of mercantilists, physiocrats, cameralists, and so forth are pitched within an earlier framework that economics is for, and about, state action.” She argues that the history of economics as engineering would do well to study the “forging” of tools at the intersection between the two fields. I think this study of Tinbergen highlights that engineering, at least for him, was still “for, and about, state action.” Studying the forging of the tools will make us easily lose sight of the political-economic dimensions of this project and might in fact lead us to view economics as a technical field, precisely as some engineers imagined it. Tinbergen did not imagine economics as a technical field; his policy models recognized the normative nature of economic policy and were always concerned with quantitative technical improvements as well as institutional changes to the economy.7

In Tinbergen's hands, technical macroeconomics became a new tool for economic experts, who advised governments about the best way to manipulate the new macroeconomic instruments. The mastery of this new technique contributed to the authority of a new generation of economic experts who presented themselves as neutral advisers working in the general interest, for whom their increased reliance on mathematical and statistical techniques could go hand in hand with policy relevance. One side of this development is well described in the history of operations research as a policy science, as sketched by William Thomas (2015). In this article I have demonstrated that Tinbergen relied on statistics, econometrics, and mathematical models as a policy science. But the institutional side of that development is easily overlooked. Tinbergen's unique contribution is that he developed both the models and an institutional embedding for economic expertise. This combination perhaps made him more aware than his contemporaries of the continued relevance of the older questions of political economy, but it was formed by his understanding of economics as a policy science, in service of the state.

Reading Tinbergen's work as a continuation of economics as a policy science, or Staatswissenschaften, helps us see that he believed that the state should take up, and in the afterwar period had taken up, a new role in the economy. This new role in which it controlled key levers to manipulate the economy called for new models that reflected this new decision-making structure in the economy. Surprisingly, Tinbergen's work retained some of the more political economic characteristics of the approach we associate with the German historical school. His work grew out of the tradition of Staatswissenschaften, economics as a policy science, and demonstrated some of its attention to historical development, institutional configurations, and the normative dimensions of policy. This set Tinbergen apart from some of his more technocratic contemporaries.

The author would like to thank the organizers of the various workshops on Local Entanglements in the History of Mathematical Economics, Thomas Mueller and Juan Carvajalino, as well as the participants for their feedback and guidance. Two anonymous referees provided excellent feedback on an earlier draft.

Notes

1.

This section draws on chap. 4 of Dekker 2021.

2.

Jan Tinbergen to Paul Ehrenfest, June 22, 1929, Museum Boerhaave Archive, Leiden.

3.

In response, Koopmans published a series of articles on equilibrium that provided the theoretical foundation for the applied ideas that Tinbergen laid out in his pre-advice (see, e.g., Koopmans 1932).

4.

Polak helped with the translation, but the book contains no significant deviations from the Dutch version published by Tinbergen in 1943 (pts. 1 and 2) and 1946 (pt. 3).

5.

S. de Wolff, “Dr. J. Tinbergen’s De Konjunktuuur: Dit boek is Tinbergen op en de op,” Het Volk, Mar. 26, 1934, Wetenschappelijk Bijvoegsel.

6.

He defined the goal of econometrics this way in a letter to Ragnar Frisch. Jan Tinbergen to Frisch, Mar. 20, 1936, National Library of Norway, Oslo, Frisch Correspondence.

7.

It is worth emphasizing that he was aware of his distinctive position in this regard: “The distinction between foundations and structure has not been made by most of the econometric authors writing on economic policy, but it is very common in literary economics and, in the present author’s opinion, of considerable importance” (Tinbergen 1956: 5). He does not specify who he means by the literary economists, but it is plausible that these would have been more institutionally oriented scholars.

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